Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360) Review

When it launched in October 2008, Dead Space took me by complete surprise. I had not been following the game through development and gained interest via the enthusiasm of a friend and co-worker, and I'm glad he convinced me to pick the title up. Packed with atmosphere, tension, and horror, Dead Space was an exceptional survival experience the likes of which I hadn't experienced in years.

Now, just over two years later the sequel is available and Isaac Clarke returns. Set three years after the unfortunate fate of the Ishimura, Isaac now finds himself committed to psychiatric care on the medical facilities of the Sprawl, a massive space station on one of the moons of Saturn. Though Isaac survived the horrific events of the first game, he now suffers from dementia and disturbing visions and hallucinations of Nicole, his dead girlfriend.

The game begins with Frank (the protagonist of Dead Space: Ignition), freeing Isaac from his cell during a Necromorph outbreak that's consuming this part of the station. Soon on his own, Isaac must escape, fend for himself, and attempt to piece together just what's going on while battling his own delusions. While the game has many high points, I consider the story telling and atmosphere to be the peak of these. Simply put, Dead Space 2 has excellent story telling for a survival horror game.

Unlike the original title, Isaac now speaks which fleshes out his character so much more and allows for real relations to form between himself and other survivors, enhancing the drama and the tension. There's a greater sense of urgency in Dead Space 2, mingling nicely with the dread prevalent in the enemy encounters, and by game's end you really end up feeling for Issac and everything he's gone through.

You're very rarely taking on masses of enemies at a time, though there are such situations. Often times Necromorphs will pop up when you least expect them and the developers tease you with freaky noises, lighting failures, and other such psychological events. While it may sounds generic, believe me it's all beautifully executed and if you're anything like me, you'll be playing most of the game standing up. Spread out over 15 Chapters and two discs, Dead Space 2 keeps this wonderful progression going strongly until the very last few Chapters. For some odd reason the developers abandon the clever enemy encounters typical of the series and simply resort to tossing large groups or infinite spawning enemies at you, and while the story telling remains exceptionally strong through to the climax, the last gameplay sequences suffer from this odd design shift.

To further enhance the storytelling method, the game doesn't feature traditional cutscenes and quickly transitions to in-game cinematic and gameplay seamlessly. This works wonders for immersing the player and keeping them sucked into the moment providing a truly wonderful cinematic quality to the game. On occasion though it's not perfectly clear that a cutscene has transitioned back to gameplay, and you end up dying due to lack of action. This got frustrating on occasion but in truth, it's a minor gripe.

The majority of the great gameplay mechanics from the original game return, some tweaked, some the same, and some massively overhauled. With respect to Isaac's R.I.G., the Inventory, Objectives, and Logs are just as you remember them, but the hard-to-understand map is now gone. Instead, Isaac not only has his Locator to guide him to his next objective, but you can actually toggle your Locator to show you the nearest Save Point, Store, and Work Bench. This is a fantastic enhancement that really makes navigating your environment all the easier.

Zero gravity, a well advertised and executed mechanic in the original game, returns but in a rather different form. You no longer move from wall to wall, looking at a surface and hitting "Y" to jump to it, you now click to Left Stick to begin floating. You can then use the Left Stick to move or essentially fly around zero gravity environments. The Left Bumper activates a handy speed boost and the Right Bumper re-centres Isaac in case you get confused about which way is up. While this new method of free floating zero gravity certainly works and there's some great situational-based sequences built around them, I must confess I miss the more puzzle oriented and disorienting method of the original game's zero gravity.

All the weapons from the first game return and can still be upgraded at the Work Bench via Power Nodes (and the Plasma Cutter is still an exceptional weapon) and several new armaments are available for dismembering fun. I personally really liked the Detonator, essentially a grenade launcher that launches a proximity mine, with Alt Fire deactivating any undetonated mines. The Seeker Rifle is a sniper rifle that does high damage and its Alt Fire is a zoomed in mode that can enhance damage when upgraded, and the Javelin Gun is another sniper-based weapon that allows you to impale targets knocking them away and sticking them to walls, and it's Alt Fire releases an electrical charge that'll fry nearby enemies as well.

And there are enemies aplenty in Dead Space 2, with the majority of the Necromorphs from the first game re-appearing along with some new and unpleasant baddies. The Pack is a swarm of children turned space-zombie that attempt to, well, swarm Isaac. There's also the Puker, a new form of Necromorph that spits a corrosive bile which not only damages you, but also prevents you from running while it lasts allowing other enemies to more easily finish you off. The Cyst is a stationary enemy that responds to motion and launches some kind of organic explosive on anything that gets close; friend or foe it seems. There's more enemies, of course, and some rather spectacular boss fights to challenge Isaac as he attempts to survive but I don't want to ruin all the surprises and scares coming your way.

With all this stacked against you, thankfully you'll have no issues controlling Isaac. Aside from the above mentioned changes to zero g combat, the Controller layout is almost identical to the first game's. The few changes include: Reloading is now on "X" and can be performed without aiming. "Y" no longer has anything to do with Inventory and instead uses a Stasis Pack and when Aiming, fires Stasis. Such minor improvements go well with the flow of the game and make things even simpler.

Visually, the game looks lovely. Character models are crisp, clean, and detailed. The texture quality on the Xbox 360's hardware shows its age a bit during close ups, but it's nothing that'll take away from the experience. The game's strong use of lightening not only helps to cover this up but also heightens the atmosphere and tension remarkably well. Dead Space 2 is dark, but not horribly so. The sound scape is as brilliant as in the original. It's hard to believe after one game just how iconic the basic sound effects have become. From the locked door chime to navigating menus and your Inventory to firing your Plasma Cutter, all the little sounds scream Dead Space. Oh, and then there's the superb voice acting as well. Seriously, top notch all the way.

Now, Dead Space 2 also features a Multiplayer mode which, in all honesty, I haven't tried nor do I expect to at this point. Pitting a Sprawl Security Team against a team of Necromorphs, it's apparently in the spirit of Left 4 Dead's Multiplayer, a game which I'm not a fan of. In addition, none of my friends are playing Dead Space 2's Multiplayer and none of the game's 50 Achievements are Multiplayer based. Personally I'd rather load up Halo: Reach or something for my Multiplayer fix, and I look at the fact that Dead Space 2 has a Multiplayer mode as a bonus. You will need to activate it with an online pass though that's included with new copies of the game. If you buy used, you'd need to pay extra for online activation, but this would only come into play if you want to use the game's Mutliplayer features.

Despite my lack of interest in the game's Multipalyer, its single player content boasts strong replay value. My first foray through the Sprawl on Normal difficulty took me just over 16 hours, so I can hardly complain about play time. You can then begin a new game from scratch or use the New Game + feature which allows you to take your Isaac Clarke into another game, and all your items will be available to you at the first Store. In a New Game + playthrough you'll also come across new Schematics for even better suits to help Isaac along, and you'll actually need to use New Game + to unlock a few of the game's Achievements.

Completing the game on any difficulty also unlocks the Hardcore Difficulty, which is something I hope to attempt someday. Why won't I be giving it a try right now? Well, you must start Hardcore from scratch, there is no New Game + option for it, and it's the same general difficulty level as Survivor, the game's second hardest difficulty. The catch with Hardcore? You can only save a grand total of three times per game and there are no Checkpoints. This means you'll need to play for hours and hours without dying, and if you get unlucky, well, you'll be starting a good while back.

Such a difficulty requires quite the time commitment and while I want to attempt it, I sadly don't have that kind of spare time right now, but I look forward to when I do!

Dead Space 2 is a positively excellent experience and a great new title to kick of 2011 with. Full of great story telling, atmosphere, and replayability, along with a simple Multiplayer mode to boot, the game is well worth your time and attention and is already a strong contender for Game of the Year. Like its predecessor there is no reason why I wouldn't recommend Dead Space 2 to anyone as it's a masterpiece of survival horror, and I do hope you get to play and enjoy this excellent title.

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